- The Washington Times - Friday, May 13, 2005

For the past two decades, Bethesda architect Mark McInturff has specialized in custom houses, earning a reputation for boldly contemporary design in a city that favors traditionalism. Now he has completed a much bigger home that rightfully moves his talent center stage. Opening this weekend is Mr. McInturff’s first design of a cultural venue, the permanent quarters of the long itinerant Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. This largely underground, industrial-style interior is excavated behind a historic brick facade on D Street NW, just off Seventh Street NW. It is part of a mixed-use complex called the Jefferson at Penn Quarter just being completed south of the MCI Center by Texas-based developer JPI.

Taking advantage of a 150-foot-long, two-story slot, the architect introduces the theater with a Piranesian setting of concrete stairways and bridges that puts the audience on display.

The open, raw space well represents the theater company’s mission to produce provocative new plays and sets the stage for what artistic director Howard Shalwitz calls a “transparent theatrical laboratory.”

The theater complex is entered at the side from a passageway that leads from D Street up to a garden courtyard in the center of the block. (Unfortunately, the gates to this urban oasis are kept locked, and only residents of the development’s condos have access). A modern steel and glass canopy will eventually be installed to mark the entrance.

Inside, the storefront serves as a combination of lobby, cafe and ticketing area with a long open counter. From this space, patrons descend a staircase to a lower lobby in front of the theater auditorium that incorporates a bar and a tiny bookstore. Once in this sunken space, they can climb up stairs at the back to reach a long, bridge over the bar or the balcony level inside the theater.

Despite the level changes, Mr. McInturff makes the location of the actual theater crystal clear. He has enclosed the hall with a 22-foot-high curved wall made of translucent polycarbonate panels and mylar that, when lit from above, literally glow. This beacon is clearly visible from the street lobby to signal people to proceed downstairs.

But within this luminous veil, the doors opening into the theater are awkwardly placed behind a concrete structural column. Apparently, no grand entrances are allowed.

Just beyond the theater wall, a wide concrete staircase leads down to a rehearsal hall that’s tucked under the upper entrance lobby. Here, the architect made another clever move. He fronted the rehearsal space with a canted, fir-framed glass wall that extends beyond the top of the room so that its upper portion doubles as a balustrade in the lobby above. The glass transmits daylight and allows views of the dramatic action.

Also simple but smart is the ceiling “canopy,” a white-painted strip of wallboard, extending the entire length of the multi-level lobby space to direct the eye from front to back.

Although Mr. McInturff hadn’t designed a theater before, he had plenty of help in configuring the 265-seat hall. To connect audience and actors, Mr. Shalwitz sought an intimate, “courtyard”-style auditorium modeled after London’s Cottesloe and Tricycle theaters rather than a fan shape.

The architect complied with a U-shaped configuration of tiered orchestra and balcony seating designed in collaboration with Theatre Projects, the skillful consultants responsible for the new hall at the Strathmore Music Center in North Bethesda.

Within the 6,000-square-foot hall, black upholstered seats, many of them movable, and black-painted steel balconies, catwalks and staircases almost disappear. Maple seat backs, fir slats on the balconies and a fire-engine red wall at the rear provide the only color.

In keeping with the bare-bones look of the theater, rigging is visible on one wall, and just behind the stage, a tall workshop allows scenery to be moved easily into place.

Visible above the seating is the concrete floor of the theater company’s offices. This upper-story space is also well configured with a curved glass wall that lets in light from the exterior passageway adjacent to the building.

Throughout the interior, the concrete structural columns and building shell are left unfinished, attesting to a tight budget. (The architect admits some of his custom house projects cost more than this $8 million project). Only a few walls, mostly in the enclosed rooms, are covered in drywall and painted in vibrant colors.

The rough, concrete surfaces contribute to the theater’s warehouse esthetic, but, combined with the gray and black furnishings in the lobby, the effect becomes a bit grim. Hopefully, brighter carpeting and upholstered furniture will be eventually installed to soften some of the hard edges.

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